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Under Pressure: Inside Shutterstock's High Stakes Hackathon

What happens when you get 262 employees together to build a life-changing idea in 24-hours? Incredible things.
Data Scientist Eliot Brenner creates an algorithm for a mobile app during "Hack to the Future."
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Thirty-six floors above the New York Stock Exchange, a clock is ticking. When the alarm goes off, it won't signal the close of the market. It will signal the end of a 24-hour push to build Shutterstock's next big idea.

Shutterstock, which went public in October 2012, held its third annual hackathon, "Hack to the Future," last Thursday. It's a time-honored tradition, but with 262 employees, 24 hours, and only two minutes to present, the pressure was on.  

"Shutterstock was created by a hack," said CEO and (Silicon Alley's first billionaire) Jon Oringer. "We just kept trying until one day we hit on opening the system up and letting everyone contribute." With more than 27 million pieces of content and revenue at $169.6 million this year, you could say that was one successful hack. Today Shutterstock, which opened its IPO at $17 per share a little less than a year ago, is sitting pretty at $53.

Oringer said the hackathon helps workers brainstorm ideas, like Oculus, a data analysis tool, that won last year and is used every day. 

As developers ripped up their keyboards, filling black screens with white, red, and green code, other team members purchased domain names, set up API access, and drafted business plans. One led by CTO Jim Chou created a mobile app called ShutterstockTrends, which shows what images are trending in different countries. 

"What's great about the hackathon is the whole notion of people mixing with each other from different parts of the company to solve a customer or contributor problem," he said. "The whole team is comprised of different cross-functional expertise. When we pull together technology knowledge, art direction and content, that's when magic happens."

David Fraga, VP of corporate development, agreed that the hackathon reflects the company's culture. "Shutterstock's culture is all about that it can be done better and how our ideas can come to life easily," he said. 

Added Eliot Brenner, a data scientist whom Chou calls part of Shutterstock's "brain": "I am excited to be involved with something that will have a big impact on a lot of people. And getting it done very quickly is fun."

In one room, walls made of dry erase boards were covered with ideas for IconHound, a hack that lets Shutterstock sell symbols for $2 a pop. There, Janet Giesen, senior manager of business development, fine-tuned her work. "I thought that since I am not a developer and don't write code what would I do?" she said. "But I am able to set up the business side of our project and make it easier for everyone else." 

Last updated: Jul 30, 2013

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported in the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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